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  • Writer's pictureErin Hackett

What researching death taught me about life.

Updated: Nov 4, 2023

Amidst the emergence of Covid and the weight of personal trauma—a silent miscarriage in the second trimester—I found refuge and purpose in the hospital research project I was involved in at the time, called the "End of Life" study.

As I delved into the data abstraction for the study, I initially believed it to be a mere distraction from my own struggles. However, as I delicately worked with the stories of the patients, aged over 65, who passed away within 48 hours of triage, I began to see them as more than just numbers on a spreadsheet. They were real people, each with their own unique journey and story—neighbours and perhaps individuals I may have known in another context. Their lives and memories became intertwined with mine, and I felt a profound empathy for them as I learned about their past, their dreams, and their final moments. In the depths of their experiences, I discovered the essence of a good death and the fear of a bad one.

So, what is a good death?

A good death, in relation to healthcare, is an approach that prioritises the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of the individual during their end-of-life journey. It focuses on providing comfort, dignity, and support to the patient and their loved ones as they navigate this profound transition. But most importantly, it is about preparation.

As I tenderly read and abstracted data for 148 variables about the patients' last 48 hours in this world, I absorbed much more than mere statistics. I delved into every detail of their last six months of life, listening to the whispers of their stories and embracing their joys and sorrows. I could feel their presence within me, and I understood that this was not just a research project; it was an opportunity to honour their memory and their story.

Throughout this emotional journey, I encountered stories of good deaths, where love and acceptance prevailed, and bad ones, marked by unpreparedness and loneliness. The depth of these experiences touched my soul and reaffirmed the importance of being mindful of our existence and mortality.

In the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, we are reminded that there is a time for everything, including a time to be born and a time to die. As I reflected on the stories of these patients, I couldn't help but be moved by the beauty and fragility of life. It became clear that embracing the idea of a "good death" isn't just about the final moment; it's about the journey that leads us there. It's about cherishing every precious moment, nurturing our relationships, and finding peace within ourselves and with our loved ones. But it's also about embracing our mortality and the disease process, whatever that may be, which leads us to our final breaths. Meet it head-on. Develop a plan. Communicate it to your loved ones.

Dying flower on peach sunset background

In the face of the uncertainty brought about by Covid and my own personal struggles, this research project has been a source of illumination and introspection. With each story, I found myself holding space for empathy and understanding, feeling a profound connection to those who had passed away and the unwavering dedication and compassion of the healthcare professionals, who, in these moments of vulnerability and transition, provided healing, love, and comfort to their patients.

By embracing this perspective, I believe we can better prepare ourselves for the inevitable, finding comfort in the stories and memories that will live on even after we are gone. In this embrace, I have found solace amidst the storm and a newfound appreciation for the beauty and interconnectedness of life's journey.

In the inspiring words of Viktor Frankl, “Live as if you were living for the second time, and as if you had acted wrongly the first time.”

It is important we prepare for the inevitable journey that awaits us all and one that we can approach with grace and tranquility, knowing that we have taken the steps to create an end-of-life plan. Openly discuss your hopes, wishes, and desires for your end-of-life care. By having these heartfelt conversations with your doctor and your family, we ensure that our preferences are heard and understood, allowing our loved ones to advocate for us with compassion and respect.

And in facing the next world, we may carry the comfort of having taken control of our journey and can move forward in peace, with our hearts at ease.

Leave me a comment below with your thoughts on what a good death means to you and how we might prepare ourselves and our loved ones.

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